#BlackLivesMatter co-founder challenges those who stay silent


Story by Dory Smith, Multimedia Editor

Opal Tometi grew up as part of a Nigerian family in Phoenix, Arizona, battling with racial profiling, and she saw her little brother develop low self esteem because of his skin color and hair texture.

“I knew at that point that I had to do something,” Tometi said. “Even though I was a high schooler, I knew something was woefully awry when this perfect young child would think that something could be wrong with him.”

Tometi is now a dedicated activist and co-creator of a viral Twitter hashtag and movement, #BlackLivesMatter. She spoke on Feb. 24 at the Lied Center in Lawrence.

Soon after witnessing these problems, Tometi became involved in social justice clubs, and in 2013 the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin inspired the hashtag BlackLivesMatter.

“So many of us, myself included, felt like we were punched in the gut,” Tometi said. “It was almost like a cloud among us where we just knew something terrible had happened and that if we didn’t do something about it, that this was going to mark our generation.”

Without Twitter and other social media networks, this powerful movement might not be as relevant as it is today. Tometi believes that social media is definitely not the answer to intense racial issues but instead it provides an outlet for exploring possibilities and helping display ignorance.

“We’re told to be color blind, and it’s a myth,” Tometi said. “We’re told overwhelmingly to be quiet about race and racism, more importantly.”

As the hashtag continues to expand, other variations such as #AllLivesMatter have been created.

“We continue to say all lives matter,” Tometi said. “But the fact is, all lives don’t matter, we know that.”

After traveling across the globe, Tometi says that people are inspired and have been waiting for this movement.

“Our culture, our policies, our economics impact the entire globe,” Tometi said. “It’s actually important that we understand how dire it is to have all of our brothers, sisters and allies deeply invested in this movement because ultimately it’s about multi-racial democracy that works for all of us, and when black lives matter, we know that all lives will matter and this will have a ripple effect not only in the United States but quite literally across the globe.”

As she spoke, a Martin Luther King quote, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter,” was shown on the screen.

Tometi believes this quote captures the essence of why consistency and hard work are vital in racial justice affairs.

“The only thing that makes us extraordinary is that we’re engaged in the work.”

Tometi strongly believes that during these times, we don’t have a choice but to get involved.

“You’re either with the movement or not,” Tometi said. “In periods like this, you do not get to be neutral.”

She stressed that the passion, input and investment of all nationalities and genders are important in the growth of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, regardless of how uncomfortable it may be.

“For folks who have been sitting on the sidelines, who have been thinking ‘they’re going to handle it, it’s only about them so I’m not going to get involved,’ it’s actually about you, too,” Tometi said. “We can’t tolerate your frailty. We literally have black boys and black girls dying because of your frailty and your inability to deal with the facts.”

Some students, including University of Kansas junior Morgan Linder, left with an altered mindset of their role in social justice.

“I can do more as a white ally,” Linder said. “Outside of just supporting the words and actions of my friends, but I can actually do something to help fight white supremacy and other things that are affecting these communities.”

Mungano President and senior Lauren Allen Brown also provided insight on Tometi’s discussion of neutrality.

“You can’t be supportive sometimes,” Brown said. “This movement needs supporters all of the time, but we also have the keep educating ourselves and those around us.”

Tometi ended the discussion by having the audience recite a powerful quote by Assata Shakur that is often chanted at rallies:

“It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and protect one another. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”